- The theory that a general council (rather than the pope) is the supreme and ultimate authority in the Christian church. This theory was rooted in the practice of the early church, especially in the role of the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries in defining the doctrines of orthodox Christianity. The growing tendency of the bishops of Rome to claim absolute supremacy eclipsed the idea of conciliar power but did not entirely destroy it. Several popes of the 12th and 13th centuries held councils, but these were carefully controlled and posed no serious challenge to papal sovereignty. Medieval canon law provided that in some special cases the Holy See could be outranked by a council. In general, such ideas of conciliar power covered only great emergencies.The terrible crisis of the Western Schism (1378-1417), which produced two rival lines of popes, moved even moderate canonists, bishops, and secular rulers toward acceptance of Conciliarism. The abortive Council of Pisa (1409) attempted to put these theories into practice but merely added a third pope to the prevailing confusion. The Council of Constance (1414-1418), summoned by the Emperor Sigismund, was able to end the Schism. It was dominated by academic canon lawyers who wanted to use the occasion not only to restore unity but also to compel reluctant popes to undertake a thorough reform of the church and to establish a permanent role for representative councils in the constitution of the church. They attempted to achieve this end by enacting the decree Haec sancta in 1415, which declared that a general council of the whole church was superior to any part of the church, even the pope. In 1417 the council also enacted the decree Frequens, which required all future popes to summon a general council at least every 10 years. Although the pope elected at Constance, Martin V, was required to swear obedience to these decrees, neither he nor his successors accepted them as valid. Long before the end of the 15th century, papal absolutism had been restored.Although many canon lawyers and reformers remained devoted to Conciliarism, the general acceptance of Conciliarism had been a product of the Schism, and the end of the Schism, by resolving the immediate crisis, weakened favor for conciliar ideas. Conciliarism remained influential in some northern universities, especially at Paris, and among some reformers who saw that the popes showed little enthusiasm for sweeping reforms and wanted to use a council to compel reform. The acceptability of Conciliarism was also damaged by the failure of the Council of Basel, particularly by the council's rash attempt to dethrone and replace Pope Eugenius IV. Individuals and rulers occasionally used the threat of a council to bring pressure on popes, notably the convening of the Council of Pisa by Louis XII of France in 1511. Fear of conciliar doctrines was still powerful at Rome and does much to explain the reluctance of the popes of the Reformation era to summon a council early enough to make a credible response to the early Protestant Reformers.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.